The story originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2007, issue of The Daily News. It won a first-place award from the Society for Professional Journalists in 2008. That was my biggest year for awards! I won two first-place awards (for this story and for “Our teens’ pill problem”; a third-place for spot news for “Hundreds Hit the Streets”; and an honorable mention for comprehensive coverage for “Agents nab 20 in massive drug sting.” 

Group photo: (left to right) Alane Lee, Marnie Slater, James Richie and Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig laugh at a quip Rosenzweig made about Richie’s driving. Photo by Greg Ebersole.

Single photo: In a 2003 interview, James Richie explains how he was shot by Rosenzweig. Photo by Roger Werth.

Saved by a Bullet

By Leslie Slape / The Daily News

James Richie regards being shot in the chest by a Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputy as “the first day of my second life.”

On Jan. 22, 2003, high on meth, driving a stolen car and casing houses on Columbia Heights, he found himself surrounded by sheriff’s patrol cars. He frantically backed up and surged forward, hitting two patrol cars as he tried to escape.

Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig fired at Richie — and inadvertently became the agent of his epiphany.

Today, Richie, 28, is free from drugs, working steadily and engaged to be married. He radiates health and contentment. And he counts among his friends the deputy who fired the bullet that nearly killed him.

Richie, some of his family and Rosenzweig discussed his turnaround in a series of interviews during the past two weeks.

 

The pivotal day

On the morning of the shooting, Richie and a friend drove up on Columbia Heights looking for something to steal to sell for drugs. Richie, then 23, had been using various drugs since age 12, starting with marijuana. Around age 19, he began using meth and living on the streets.

A suspicious citizen called 911 and Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputies quickly corralled the car. Richie’s car bumped into several patrol vehicles as he tried to maneuver out. A deputy shot out Richie’s tires as he reversed toward Rosenzweig, who was standing by a car and had to leap out of the way.

Seeing Richie accelerate toward another deputy’s vehicle, Rosenzweig fired. The jacketed hollow-point .45 caliber bullet — which Rosenzweig said is “one of the more powerful handgun rounds on the market” — entered under Richie’s right armpit, went through an artery and lodged under the skin on the right side of Richie’s chest.

“I relied on my training and experience,” said Rosenzweig, who has no regrets. “James knows it was not personal. I did not know who he was at the time and actually that would not have played any role in my actions to shoot the driver of the car. I did what I did based on the threat that I saw at the time.”

“I have no hard feelings,” Richie said. “I’ve got to look at the positive side of life, not the negative side. He seems like a standup guy.”

Eventually, Richie pleaded guilty to second-degree assault with a deadly weapon (automobile), second-degree burglary and four other felony charges. He was released from prison Dec. 18.

 

Coming face to face

After he got out of prison, Richie started attending services at Shekinah Christian Center, where his cousin, Todd Anderson, is the pastor. Rosenzweig has gone to the Longview church since its founding in 1979.

Meeting Rosenzweig “gave me a little mixed feelings,” Richie admitted. “But he came up and talked to me. He said he prayed for me every day I was locked up. I thanked him for changing my life and he said, ‘I thank God you’re alive today and doing better.’ ”

“I don’t think people understand how law enforcement and the criminal justice system plays a positive role in people’s lives,” Rosenzweig said. “It’s not uncommon for people to come up to me and say, ‘You don’t remember me, but you arrested me and it’s the best thing that happened to me.’ In this case, it’s a little more unusual because shootings don’t take place very often, fortunately.”

If Richie felt apprehensive meeting Rosenzweig, the deputy had a similar reaction when Richie’s mother, Alane Lee, introduced herself. But she put him at ease with a hug.

“When you come face to face with the man who shot your son, it can be very hard,” she said. “But I told him, ‘Charlie, I know you were the one that pulled the trigger. but I firmly believe God was the one that directed the bullet.’ ”

The bullet came a fraction of an inch from killing her son, said Lee, who has read the medical report.

“I really believe that James, his incarceration, his rehabilitation and his future is a testament of what God can do to a willing vessel,” she said.

The men don’t see each other socially, but they enjoy talking at church.

“We’ll be visiting and joking, and people will say, ‘How do you know him?’ ” Rosenzweig said.

He laughed at the unspoken punch line.

“I don’t bother to go into the story,” he said. “I just say he’s a friend of mine.”

 

Not tempted

Richie said he was offered drug treatment in prison, but he refused.

“I told them, ‘You know what? I already went through my treatment.’ And they said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘I died. I was high on meth and I died. I think I changed.’ They saw it, and they thought it was enough.’ ”

At 28 he looks years younger than he did at 23. He weighs 220 pounds, up from the gaunt 142 he weighed when The Daily News photographed him in 2003. He got his driver’s license back and has a job as a laborer for a scaffolding company in Kent, Wash., working with his older brother, David. He fell in love with Marnie Slater, who was his junior high school crush, and they’re looking for a home in Kent.

“I can walk around with my head up now,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m healthy and I got myself a great girl.”

He said when he runs into old friends, “They say, ‘You’re looking fricking beautiful, man. How did you do it?’ ”

He tells them he quit drugs.

“It’s simple to me,” he said. “If I want to change, have a better life, then I’ll do it. If you want to do drugs, have no place to go and just go through hell on earth, then do it. I don’t see how people say, ‘I just can’t do it.’ I say, ‘Well, you don’t want to do it.’ People baffle me sometimes.”

Some of the people from his old life have trouble believing he’s the same man they knew.

“The person I was five years ago … they think I am not that person,” he said. “They think I’m a totally different James Richie.”

 

Other hardships

He may not struggle with temptation, but there are other hardships, he said.

The shot left him with no feeling in his right hand, which used to be his dominant hand. He learned to use his left after the shooting and is now ambidextrous. After several operations, he has regained much of his strength and dexterity in the right hand, and can write with it, but he can’t throw a football or small rocks.

“I used to be a javelin thrower (at Kelso High School), so that kinda sucks,” said Richie. “But I can still swing a baseball bat. I can throw a Nerf football. I can shoot hoops — I can’t dribble well with my right, but I’ve got my left.”

He regards his hand as “God’s reminder to me,” just as Jacob in Genesis, who dared to wrestle with God, “walks the rest of his life with a gimp hip.”

His biggest problem right now is society’s attitude toward his criminal record, he said. He and Marnie have been turned down by numerous prospective landlords in Kent, and meanwhile, Richie is commuting 300 miles a day.

“We have a letter from his probation officer saying he’s drug-free,” said Marnie, who has four young children from a previous marriage. “It’s frustrating.”

They said the only neighborhoods that will accept them are populated by felons and addicts.

“I want a community where I don’t have to worry about that stuff,” Richie said. “I can’t be a hypocrite because I used to be one of those people, but I want to get away from it.”

Richie won’t allow himself to lose hope.

“You can’t give up,” he said. “When you’ve gone this far, you can’t. Some people may, but that’s not me.”

 

Family is proud, supportive

Richie’s family is delighted with the change in him.

“I’m just totally elated and excited about the change and the decisions he’s made,” said his cousin and pastor, Todd Anderson. He said the family tried for years to get Richie away from drugs.

But when Richie was in the depths of his addiction he was too centered on himself to realize how self-destructive his behavior was, Anderson said.

“Once he got his eyes off himself, got sober and took time to look back, he realized he was involved in self-destructive behavior,” Anderson said. “He kind of hit a wall and said, ‘It’s time to take control of my life.’ ”

“I can’t emphasize enough the family support from my brothers (David and Paul Richie), my mom, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins,” Richie said.

Alane Lee said she “could not be more proud” of her son.

“He has a wonderful testimony. He endured a lot, but his heart remained positive,” she said. “He didn’t come out bitter, with a hard heart or anything like that. He came out with the determination to never repeat what he did. He realized he made stupid mistakes and that was behind him.”

Richie said some of his stupid mistakes were prompted by his being a thrill seeker — but being shot was the ultimate thrill.

“Now I build scaffold for a living. I’m up 350 feet in the air, and that takes care of my thrills in life,” he said.

“I love hearing that,” Rosenzweig said to him. “People come to us (law enforcement) and say, ‘Is there hope? There’s no hope for me.’ ” He told Richie he could point to him as “a real-life example.”

Nothing would please Richie more than to help others.

“Bad times can lead to good times if you got the desire for it,” Richie said. “If you want to change, be a better man, you can do it. It doesn’t have to take a bullet to do it, but it did for me. I thank God every day that day happened.”

Lee said she hoped her son’s story would give hope “to all of those mothers who feel there’s no hope.”

“My three sons have taken different paths in life,” Lee said. “James is the one who took a little detour.”

“I was there — at very high speed!” Rosenzweig said, as Lee, Richie and Slater broke into laughter. “I saw that detour.”

 

Links to the 2003 stories

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